In China, Eugenics Determines Who Plays in School Bands
By DIDI KIRSTEN TATLOWDEC. 1, 2016
“We’ve chosen your children according to their physical attributes,” the leader told a group of parents at a Beijing public elementary school.
A Chinese version of Mars One, a Dutch program to send people to Mars, blossomed in my mind. They could call it “Huoxing yi,” or Fire Star One, with Mars translating into Chinese as “fire star.” It would be a select group of second graders, future breeders in white jumpsuits, taking off from the Chinese desert in a Shenzhou, or Divine Land, spacecraft, abandoning their exhausted planet to build a new civilization as Earth slides into an abyss of climate change. China has a pretty good space program, after all.
Yet we had been called in to hear about the school’s music band, not a mission to Mars. So what was Teacher Wang talking about?
Eugenics for music, it turns out. Teacher Wang proceeded to describe a program by which a group of 8-year-olds, selected purely on the basis of physical characteristics rather than interest, would build the best band in the world that would travel overseas and wow audiences with the flower of Chinese youth. Freaky enough, without a one-way ticket to Mars.
“For the best band, we’ve chosen the best students and the best teachers,” Teacher Wang continued.
Mr. Wang, whom parents addressed only as “Teacher,” (a sign of respect common here) stood before a giant white screen on which he projected a power point full of instrument images. “I’ve chosen your kids, one by one, out of a thousand kids.” Mr. Wang was referring to band C, the third in the school which trained the youngest students, some of whom would eventually rise through the ranks to band B and on to A, at which point they would perform at overseas gigs.
“I’ve looked at their teeth, at their arms, their height, everything, very carefully,” Teacher Wang said. “We don’t want anyone with asthma, or heart problems, or eye problems. And we want the smart kids; the quick learners.”
“Your kids were chosen not because they want to play this or that instrument, but because they have long arms, or the right lips, or are the right height, say for the trumpet, or the drums,” he said.
Seated across from me at a school desk, a father in China’s blue Public Security Uniform with silver-and-black insignia on his shoulder appeared to be listening carefully. Yet as he fiddled with a pen, took notes, leaned forward with his elbows on the desk, stared down, crossed his legs at the ankles, I wondered if he was entirely “there.” Chinese police attend a lot of ideological meetings at which matters such as the rejuvenation of the great Chinese nation or control of ethnic minorities are freely discussed. Likely he was proud his child had been selected for Band C. But perhaps he was also a bit bored, I thought.
I, however, was spellbound. During my years in China I’d learned about ideas on a person’s “quality,” or “suzhi,” — concepts that are widely accepted here but would probably discomfort liberal parents elsewhere.
At our school, the children are separated into two sections — a so-called “international department” and a “Chinese department” — depending on their citizenship. Though both sections use similar Chinese-language teaching materials, they are treated differently and rarely mingle. The majority of students in the international department are of Chinese origin too, but have with overseas passports.
The international department is more laid-back than the Chinese department which, according to my daughter, gets fewer breaks, more homework and is subject to harsher discipline. For the purposes of the school band, however, the two groups were one.
Two other non-Chinese, 8-year-old friends of my daughter were among the chosen. The Italian mother of one said her daughter had been chosen for saxophone because the girl was strongly built.
“The other girl playing the sax is a Russian, and she’s also pretty built up and strong,” said my friend. (I have omitted their names out of respect for their privacy and that of their children.)
My friend recalled that some of the parents had asked Teacher Wang why he was choosing children in grade 2 now, rather than earlier when they were in grade 1. Teacher Wang’s reply: “Because in grade 1 their teeth are falling out,” she said. My friend said that Teacher Wang had personally inspected each child’s teeth, as if, she said, “they were horses in the market.”
There was discussion of what kind of lips worked best for the trumpet.
And in a statement that shocked both of us profoundly, Teacher Wang said something about how Africans had long arms and so would be good at particular instruments, such as the cello.
The American father of the third girl said a dentist had visited the school to see which students’ teeth were best suited to play wind instruments. His daughter, braces-free, passed and is learning to play the clarinet.
My daughter, who has some wonky teeth and braces, is a drummer. Apart from the teeth, I can see why; she has the mad energy of Animal in The Muppets and loves what the Chinese call “renao,” or “hot noise,” excitement.
As a parent who found the eugenics of it disturbing, what was Ito do? Everyone, including the parents of “long-armed” children, seemed O.K. with it.
My daughter was pushing hard to be part of it.
I gave in. And she loves it.